London clubs are shining at the highest levels, but some lesser lights in the city are in steep decline. Gavin Willacy charts the struggles of former semi-pro giants brought low in part by property prices

On August 15, Enfield FC marked the 25th anniversary of their first home game in the Conference. It was their first home game of the season, a local derby and, as on that day in 1981, was played alongside the A10. The car park was packed. Unfortunately, the drivers were there to play five-a-side next door to Ware FC, 13 miles from Enfield’s spiritual home. The home end was populated by just 13 Enfield fans and one pram (occupied), who bayed throughout their home defeat to Potters Bar Town in the Ryman League Division One North. 

The story of Enfield’s demise is surpassed in this era by only Oxford United and, arguably, Nottingham Forest on the field; unsurpassed off it. From deserving entry to the Football League to scrambling around the eighth level of English football in a decade, Enfield have sunk to subterranean levels. Two other traditional north London non-League giants have watched them go, wondering if they will be next.

For two dreadful weeks in May, Hendon fans thought they would be reuniting with Enfield in level four of what the FA call “The National Game”. And just as Hendon were preparing for life outside the top flight of the Isthmian League for the first time in 43 years, Barnet were celebrating surviving their first season on their return to the Football League, after their first spell ended in 2001. Then, Hendon were reprieved from the drop thanks to Canvey Island’s decision to drop down the non-League pyramid voluntarily.

In the Seventies, when my dad regularly refereed them all, Barnet, Enfield and Hendon were major forces in non-League football, usually in the top 100 clubs in the country and with gates starting at 1,000, not the 100 that Hendon and Enfield get now. Barnet competed in the Southern League while, around the North Circular, both Enfield and Hendon dominated the Isthmian League and were both European amateur champions.

In 1974, Hendon held First Division Newcastle to a draw at St James’ Park in the FA Cup. The replay was played on a Wednesday afternoon at Watford in front of 15,000 and millions watching live on BBC during the three-day week.

When they were elected in 1981 into the Alliance Premier League (later renamed the Conference) for its third season, Enfield made the step up with ease, taking the new national semi-pro division by storm. They finished second in their debut season and won the title in 1983 and again 20 years ago, finishing above Kidderminster, Cheltenham, Boston, Scarborough, Maidstone, Wycombe and Barnet, all of whom went on to join the Football League. Enfield were denied that thrill as perennial strugglers Torquay United (in 92nd) and Preston North End – reeling from several successive disastrous seasons to finish 91st – were among those re-elected.

At the same time, an old boys’ club called Mount Grace, just off Junction 24 of the new M25, were ambling along in the Herts Senior County League, watched by crowds of up to 25 on a sunny day. I know, I used to play against them.

A year later Scarborough became the first team promoted automatically into the League as Enfield slipped to fourth, behind Maidstone and Barry Fry’s Barnet. While Fry’s Bees later provided ample entertainment in the lower divisions of the League, Enfield hit the skids. Relegated in 1990, they were far too big for the Isthmian, attracting regular four-figure gates and always chall­enging for the title. But when they were champions again in 1995 the Conference were not satisfied with the books and promotion was denied. Meanwhile, Mount Grace – renamed Potters Bar Town – had moved into the South Midlands League.

Enfield’s demise accelerated in September 1999 with the controversial sale of their Southbury Road ground for a leisure complex. Homeless, the club moved ten miles to groundshare with Boreham Wood and then St Albans. Es fans feared the worst and set up their own club, Enfield Town. It proved a wise move. Two relegations and the re­organisation of the Conference saw Enfield start 2004-05 four steps from the Football League and still homeless.

While Barnet have bounced between the League and Conference with hardly a day going by without drama either on or around their antiquated Underhill home, Enfield simply disappeared off the football map. Of course, clubs are always passing each other as they move up and down football’s escalator but what unites this trio – and others in the capital – is the damage done by huge land values. Their Victorian, suburban grounds are dream sites for developers.

Barnet is the UK’s tenth biggest local authority with a population of 326,700, yet has just two decrepit football grounds, Underhill and Hendon’s Claremont Road, and the council appears keen to see the back of both of them. The London Borough of Enfield contains 288,000 people – more than Newcastle, Nottingham, Bolton or Wolverhampton – and has just one ground: that of tiny Brimsdown Rovers, where Enfield Town also play. Meanwhile, Cheshunt and Potters Bar – both just a mile from Enfield’s boundary but, crucially, outside the M25 London orbital – are on the up.

Since the last season of a united Isthmian League, Leytonstone/Ilford, Sutton United, Hendon, Harrow Borough, Tooting & Mitcham, Dulwich Hamlet and Walthamstow Avenue have all either merged, changed names, moved grounds or disbanded altogether. It is no coincidence that they were all from Greater London.

Hendon’s proud record of never being relegated in their 98-year history remains intact, but they don’t know whether they will have a home next season; Barnet are thrilled to be boarding another rollercoaster ride in League Two, but assume they will be forced out of Underhill eventually; while Enfield keep hitting the road. They were back in Enfield on August Bank Holiday Monday, when more than 500 saw them beat Enfield Town. Their next derby is on Boxing Day: a meeting with landlords Ware. Sadly, the only action at Southbury Road will be on the big screen.

From WSC 236 October 2006. What was happening this month

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